Author: Jeff Barry

Planning for DH in the liberal arts

One of the exicting areas I’m involved in at Washington & Lee is the digital humanities initiative. I recently co-authored a case study that describes the first two years of DH at this liberal arts college: Launching the Digital Humanities Movement at Washington and Lee University: A Case Study.

A lot of really great DH activities are in the pipeline here. I’m quite amazed at where this small liberal arts college is heading with DH over the next few years.

Talking to humanists about GIS

Mapping is forming a large part of our digital humanities initiative. Through an excellent in-house tool that layers over the Google Maps API we have students engaged in building thematically content rich maps. A course in Classics maps aspects of the ancient world. An English class pinpoints locations in London from contemporary novels that the students are reading. An art history class examines Rome during the high renaissance and realizes through overlays of historic maps that the Rome of that period was a desolate shell of the imperial Rome that existed hundreds of years prior.

We know maps as visual representations that identify locations in a geographic space. Mapping is easy to grasp. GIS is not. While an annotated Google Map that pulls data via an API from a Google Docs spreadsheet or another source is a rudimentary Geographic Information System, the automated task of enabling pin placement on a map merely scratches the surface of geospatial visualization in the huamnities.

Is GIS even the right term within the humanities? With its basis in the sciences and social sciences and the need for exact precision of data, GIS presents an intimidating learning curve before a potential user even realizes the possibilities of the software. And that’s the key: understanding the possibilities of thinking in terms of place, the spaces that comprise a location, the attributes distinguishing each spot, and the relationship among those elements as they consist in a neighborhood, a city, or a broader area.


A non-academic approach to writing

A wonderful essay in A List Apart titled Writing Is Thinking highlights the importance of understanding what you read.

Because writing—that first leap into taking your idea and making it a Thing People Read—isn’t really about wording. It’s about thinking. And if you can tell the difference between an article that knows what it’s about and one that exists purely to sell ad space, then you’re pretty good at that already.

Understanding what you read…That’s the core of information literacy. Pleasant surprise to reach the end of this article published in a Web design journal to see that it was written by someone with a background in librarianship.



On the Path to a Framework for Examining Digital Humanities Initiatives

Some thoughts in progress spurred by Don Waters, a program officer at the Mellon Foundation, who has written an overview of the digital humanities.  Waters has had a distinguished career as Associate University Librarian at Yale, then as the first director of the Digital Library Federation, and has served Mellon for nearly fifteen years as a key decision-maker in what the foundation funds in the area of scholarly communication and digital content. Considering his stature in the profession it’s worth reading closely what he has to say about digital humanities (DH).

He dismisses the notion of digital humanities as a distinct discipline based on his own experience of funding many humanistic projects that centered around technology. Instead, he focuses on the tools and methodology approach in referencing DH. And that’s fine even though I don’t entirely agree. The key, however, is not to get bogged down into the “cloud chamber” attempting to define digital humanities.  Waters clearly points out that a significant problem in the debate over DH is that “[p]art of the definitional problem is that more needs to be said about the nature of the tools and methods for interrogating evidence in the digital humanities.”

As librarians and technologists with expertise in those tools and methods our obligation is to ensure that we advise faculty and students appropriately as to which approaches to use when addressing research problems. This is an extension of our traditional mastery of research tools (e.g., databases, specialized resources) and how to use that material as part of the research process. Advising which approach to take in a DH project is similar to our advisory function at the research desk. Just as some questions at the research desk may best be answered from a set of ready reference materials while others require more in-depth consultation and research, some DH inquiries are relatively simple projects handled by a small set of available tools while other DH-based research questions are best served by more complex approaches.

In reflecting on the ways that critical intelligence is applied in humanistic research Waters identifies that the tools and methods of DH fall into three strands: textual analysis, spatial analysis, and visual studies. (Waters correctly pinpoints visual analysis as emerging from the field of media studies.) “As a rule of thumb, those who refer to the digital humanities, or to the use of digital tools and processes in humanistic study, are almost always pointing to activities and the types of tools needed in one of these three areas.”

Waters provides a brief, though admittedly simplified, intellectual history of each area, starting with how language and literary studies in DH emerged from the work of Jerry McGann at UVA. Spatial analysis emerged from GIS with one of the key humanists adopting mapping strategies being Ed Ayers in the Civil War history project at UVA. (Ayers is now President of the University of Richmond.)

While Waters doesn’t mention a specific person catapulting a change in media studies, a key figure in that  area is Lev Manovich, author of The Language of New Media. Waters stresses that “the scholarly toolkit must include a suite of specialized digital tools including various kinds of visual representations, both because the visual objects of study are digitized or born digital, and because words alone may not be sufficient to understand visual evidence and communicate an argument about that evidence.”

If you don’t read any other part of Waters’ essay, then read the last two pages (8-9) that start under the heading Future Prospects in which he outlines “several areas that colleges and universities, particularly their libraries, might consider for possible additional investment.” In fact, these aspects have essential relevance to our own initiatives:

  • Be alert that each strand of research (literary, visual, and spatial analysis) has distinct requirements.
  • Preservation of digital media is critical across those three broad areas.
  • Increasing need for tools and infrastructure that span the three areas.
  • Investment in textual analysis tools are “now well advanced.” More concentration is needed on tools that support visual and spatial analysis as well as audio.
  • Build capacity to support publishing and curating scholarly products that arise from DH-based research.
  • Develop the creative impulse within scholars and students for engaging in the ways that tools open new modes of inquiry.

Waters ends this essay with “But we must also think broadly about curricular interventions, for it is only when the tools and processes for answering ‘why possible?’ questions are reliable enough to be introduced to and used productively by scores of students at once that the digital humanities could be said to have reached maturity.” Clearly, a challenge is figuring out how to adapt DH tools and methodologies for use in an undergraduate curriculum.

Out of the blatantly commercial

Now that I’m back in the non-profit world of libraries and academia my efforts are no longer slanted towards that simple question of survival, “How do I make money?” A salary is a remarkable thing (as is a job with benefits). And that frees up my thinking and efforts.

For eight years I lived in Argentina and for the first several years of that period I kept a blog about Buenos Aires, which mostly delved into the cultural heritage of that city. The aims of that blog were never commercial. However, I did repurpose the content for a couple of very money-making purposes because, quite frankly, I needed to pursue every form of income I could manage. Around 2006 – 2008 the blog was quite popular and received a large number of incoming link and corresponding traffic.

A few of the ways I repurposed selected content:

  • A free 57-page PDF book of selected postings
  • A highly visual ebook 4 Perfect Days in Buenos Aires. (I actually did make a fairly significant amount from this ebook but decided to make it freely available when I no longer had time to revise the contents.)
  • An iPhone app Buenos Aires in 4 Days. I charged for this app, initially. First, $2.99, then I dropped it to $1.99. Then to $0.99. Then, also, I no longer had time to update the app I made it free. The app remains surprisingly popular for such a niche product with total downloads over 8,000.

Of course, in the end, I never did make much from these efforts and ended up opening these initiatives and making the products free to all.

With almost 500 blog postings about Buenos Aires I have quite a set of content, only parts of which have found their way into other products. In fact, my Buenos Aires blog has over 125,000 words. That’s the equivalent of a lengthy, though unedited book. In book form the blog would be over 400 pages (not counting images)!

I’ve often thought of closing out the blog but I’m not quite done with what I have to say about Buenos Aires. Besides, though I may no longer live there, I will go back for a visit every year. With my renewed focus on the ways that digital content is represented on the Web and in apps I will be using my Buenos Aires blog as a testbed for exploring topics in the digital humanities.

Love Evernote as a research tool

Over the past few months I’ve been using Evernote extensively as a way of organizing thoughts relating to my research. I like that it’s cloud based, so I don’t have to worry about syncing data as I move from computer to table to phone and back again. I like the simplicity of creating notes and organizing those into folders. I do wish for a more hierarchal folder structure other than one level deep. But I’m working around that, a bit, with the use of tags. Evernote has become the place where I keep my research. Also, it’s a great way to keep notes about potential blogging topics. Indeed, I’m writing this post in Evernote rather than composing it in the WordPress editor. (But it does strange things to the formatting when I paste into the WP editor. Hmm, have to look into that.)

I’ve not yet tried Web Clipping. I should and will give it a try for things like “When I want to collect something from my browser (like a database search that was particularly fruitful) I just click on the web clipper icon in my browser and it will be saved for me to look at later.”  I do use Readibility to save long articles for reading later, and I really like that. But it doesn’t integrate into my research workflow.
The Evernote interface isn’t always intuitive. Example, I had to Google how to add a hyperlink. Simple now that I know but somehow I kept looking in the wrong place. Same with creating a stack of folders. Simple to create a stack but not obvious that I had to rename the top folder of the stack to get it working as I liked. And the clients vary depending upon platform. Unfortunately, at my office desk I’m stuck with a Windows client due to the university being in love with Microsoft. Sigh. But at home I always use the iOS clients, which I much prefer. Overall, though, I’m quite impressed with Evernote despite a few flaws in usability.
I do not use Evernote to store and PDFs. Instead, I use PDF Expert on the iPad. In another post I’ll talk about how I use PDF Expert, which is another tool that i really love.
Wondering how some others were utilizing Evernote for research I did a quick Google search and found the following useful tips:

The Role of Design in the Digital Humanities

Having spent most of the last decade in a book design studio I’m fascinated at the ways that an understanding of the historical traditions of printing, typography, and page layout can inform the means by which we structure and present narrative in digital media. Underlying these visual narratives are digital archives. As a librarian also, I recognize how the profession has excelled at establishing metadata standards and best practices for digitizing artifacts. Just as the production of books is largely a team effort (author, editor, proofreader, designer, printer, publisher), a new set of collaborators is emerging to produce digital works. Fundamental to digital humanities projects is bringing in the expertise of those who understand visual communications.

The highly insightful book Digital_Humanities (note the underscore) emphasizes the role of design in producing scholarship: “Digital Humanities implies a reinterpretation of the humanities as a generative enterprise: one in which students and faculty alike are making things as they study and perform research, generating not just texts (in the form of analysis, commentary, narration, critique) but also images, interactions, cross-media corpora, software, and platforms.” (Digital_Humanities, p10)

Design is one of those overarching terms needing a qualifier. It’s not always what you think it means. When we talk about design in the digital humanities we must include not just graphic design (which too often has been left out of many projects) but also information models, rhetorical patterns, interactive gestures, and systems architectures. These are all aspects of designing a scholarly resource whether that work be an archive of digitized material, an analytical tool, or a visual narrative.

It’s naive to assume that even graphic design is primarily about decorative ornaments, color palettes, or even minimalist grids. Design at the conceptual level (in all its variations) is the interrelated structure and presentation of content: “design can be also seen as a kind of editing: It is the means by which an argument takes shape and is given form.” (Digital_Humanities, p18)

Design of digital humanities projects goes hand-in-hand with developmental editing. While an author is an expert in a specified knowledge domain it’s a rare case that the scholar also possesses detailed experience in crafting digital narratives that best leverage the capabilities of the medium. Design is much more than knowing how to use tools. “In generative mode, these designers shape structural logics, rhetorical schemata, information hierarchies, experiential qualities, cultural positioning, and narrative strategies. When working analytically, their task is to visually interpret, remap or reframe, reveal patterns, deconstruct, reconstruct, situate, and critique.” (Digital_Humanities, p10)

An essential element of any digital humanities project is that the participating students gain exposure to these generative and analytical aspects of design. Ultimately, through design is how we view the world.

How Mad Men changes the way I look at the 1980s & 1990s (yes, the ’80s & ’90s)

While living in Argentina for eight years I missed out on a lot of American TV shows. Foremost among those is Mad Men. A couple years ago I was able to catch a bit of an episode from season three. After a few minutes I stopped watching. I liked the show but I realized this was a series I needed to watch from the beginning to grasp the storyline.

Now that I’m living in the U.S. again I’m going through a Mad Men marathon via Netflix. I was born at the end of 1965. Certainly the show is making me think differently about the early 1960s, a period that I’ve hardly considered before as being remotely interesting. Clearly the roles played by the actors in Mad Men are not fully representative of the era. But I keep thinking about these characters, their ages in the show, and projecting forward 20 or 25 years to the 1980s and later.

I remember the ’80s very well. That’s the time of my youth: high school, college, and a couple years at the end hunting (unsuccessfully) for a job. As a twenty year old I viewed the early 1960s as a distant era far removed from the reality of my life in 1985. All young adults probably have that perspective as it’s difficult to imagine a time before we were born.

Now, when I look back on the early 1980s I wonder about those characters in Mad Men. What is Peggy Olson doing in 1985 in her mid-forties or even in 1995 in her mid-fifties? Where is Don Draper in his late fifties? (Still living or dropped dead with cirrhosis of the liver from all that drinking or lung cancer from smoking constantly.) In my twenties I often worked with people who, I now realized, spent their young adulthood in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That’s my parents generation but I’ve never understood the passage of time as a generation ages from youth to middle age to the later years of life. (Part of this recognition stems from reflecting on my own aging.)

Attitudes and behaviors don’t change as easily as society would like to imagine. We do evolve and become different people over the decades. At least, many of us make those steps. But some don’t. We see this in one episode of Mad Men where Roger Sterling still holds resentment towards the Japanese even though War World II was twenty years in the past. Twenty years is not that long. If you don’t believe that, then wait a few more years till you look back in astonishment thinking about your own life twenty years ago.

Events of twenty years ago, for those of a certain age, represent recent history that is a part of our lives. We hold onto those things (maybe longer than we should). I can never really relate to the early 1960s, the era of Mad Men. More fascinating, though, is imagining those people a bit older…how people become who they are.

Starting to read (again) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

Of all the books I’ve read in the last few years Gramophone, Film, Typewriter has stayed in my mind the most. In my notes I find the date 4-12-11 as my first reading. The book’s author Friedrich Kittler was still living then. I was living on the coast of Argentina, which seemed much longer than two years ago. But my daughter was a mere baby then and I stayed up late many nights, unable to sleep, knowning she would soon wake and cry to be picked up. I stayed awake so that my wife could sleep as much possible. (Anyone who has had a baby knows the preciousness of sleep at that stage.) In those periods while my family slept at night I read Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. During the day I worked on developing an iPhone app that told the story (in the form of a walking tour) of Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. I took up Kittler’s book as part of my ongoing interest in narrative through digital media.

The book opens with carefully constructed, brief sentence: “Media determine our situation.” Seems so obvious that one wonders why that is a controversial statement to many unless they’re living in denial of contemporary life.

I’m reminded of a phrase from Roland Barthes that appears in The Preparation of the Novel: “typography determines reading.”

Our ideas and thoughts are shaped and influenced. Even with words the way we absorb and understand the text may be influenced by the layout of the writing on the page (or screen). The same with websites and e-books. With apps like Flipboard we’re influenced by the algorithms. Our patterns of behavior (what we buy, how we amuse ourselves) are determined by apps. The app determines.